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August 23, 2013

Eating In Truth and Action

Pastor explains the link between faith and food

  • Pastor Carter encourages a vegetarian diet as part of eating mercifully. The Fund for Theological Education

by Christopher Carter

If you were to ask a United Methodist to describe their church, it wouldn't be too long before the phrase "Sunday potluck" somehow slipped into the conversation.

Like many mainline Protestant denominations, Methodists recognize that there is a strong relationship between our faith and our food.

However, the nature of this relationship is too often left unexamined.

As an African American pastor serving predominantly minority congregations, my sermons focus on the social justice and liberative aspects of the Christian faith. I urge my congregations to live a life where their love for God, themselves, and their neighbor would compel them to work toward eliminating oppression wherever it exists.

Until three years ago I had no idea that oppression could also be found on a plate, at the dinner table.

On October 16, 2010, I visited a farm animal sanctuary and it opened my eyes to an aspect of our food industry that often remains absent and unspoken: confined animal feeding operations (or factory farms). Movies like The Humane Society of the United States' "Eating Mercifully" show us just a glimpse of the suffering that these animals endure. After this trip I could no longer preach about love, justice, or liberation without being confronted with the unloving and unjust way that these animals are treated. If I believed that God loves all Creation and desires that all Creation flourish free from oppression, then my faith required me to change my eating habits.

"Factory farming is a social justice issue...this issue impacts minorities both domestic and abroad."

I gradually began to eliminate animal products from my diet. Initially this journey was a family decision: both my wife and I stopped eating meat. Eventually members of my church began to wonder why I was "eating different"—specifically, why was I not eating the traditional food served at a black church potluck.

Much of our ethnic identity is bound up in what we eat, and by not eating certain types of meat (namely chicken) I was challenging this assumption. However, a part of what motivated me to change my diet was my commitment to the Christian practice of love and social justice that I learned from my black church community. For me, eating a vegetarian diet affirmed my commitment to my community, rather than challenge it.

I began to have open and frank conversations with my church members about why I became a vegetarian. I explained to them how factory farming is a social justice issue, and how this issue impacts minorities both domestic and abroad. In the two years that followed, my church began to serve less and less meat during community meals—not because I asked them to, but because they too began to make the connection that a loving God requires us to challenge all forms of oppression.

In this way, First UMC of Compton embraced the challenge given to all Christians in 1 John 3:18: "Let us not love in word or speech, but in truth and action."

Eating mercifully is loving in truth and in action.

Christopher Carter is a United Methodist pastor who most recently served in Compton, Calif.

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